Ann Brenoff’s “On The Fly” is a column about navigating growing older ― and a few other things.
One of my closest friends at college in New Jersey was a woman from a large and loving Italian family. Her ancient Sicilian grandma had lived with my friend and her family for my friend’s entire life ― all 20 years or so of it. Grandma, who moved in after Grandpa died decades earlier, wasn’t exactly a happy camper as she crept into her 90s. Many of her body parts had already betrayed her, and she was living with fairly constant pain. Grandma was never shy about letting anyone within earshot know that if she had her druthers, she’d have dropped dead long ago.
“I want to die,” was her oft-repeated refrain, to which she would add the uncomfortable finish, “but I don’t know how.” Her words stuck with me for decades. There are certain natural progressions in life that we are just never taught how to do.
With no disrespect toward the gravity of Grandma’s situation, that’s how I’ve been seeing my retirement. I’ll be 69 in a couple of months, and until just a few weeks ago, I couldn’t figure out how to pull the plug on my work life.
How do you know when it’s time to retire, especially from a great job you love? I tested out various theories, including the one that says retirement doesn’t need to be such an abrupt life transition. Make it gradual, work part-time, ease off the fast track and test out the waters of redefining who you are. Hell, even parents get a nine-month gestation period to get used to the idea of a child before the big day arrives.
I worried about how I would stay current without my posse of millennial co-workers to turn to. Who would teach me the secret handshake that allowed me to connect to people younger than me, which at this point is probably most of the planet?
And then, of course, there was my ego and identity. “I-am-what-I-do syndrome,” prevalent among baby boomers, has kept many a therapist in business and I stand guilty as charged. Truth is, I love telling the stranger in the plane seat next to me that I’m a staff writer for HuffPost (and before that, the Los Angeles Times). Would the eyes of these strangers, whom I will never see again, still widen slightly? And will it bother Shallow Ann if they don’t? Or the more serious version of this: Will all my accomplishments get sent to the garage in a box marked “memorabilia” when I retire, waiting for my kids to hopefully discover later?
Anyway, I suspect that not unlike Grandma had done, I’ve been quietly waiting and hoping for a cataclysmic sign from the universe, a trigger event outside my control that would set in motion my retirement. In both our cases ― mine and Grandma’s ― that event just didn’t happen fast enough, and no matter how or where we looked for guidance, we mostly found platitudes. I remember how Grandma once threw a plate of food to the ground when a dinner guest dismissed her for saying that she wished her life would end already.
“Oh, you don’t really mean that!” the naive guest said, learning very quickly that indeed, Grandma did.
Me? I’m a journalist who loves being one. While pretty much everything else in my life has been fluid and ever-changing ― single woman to married lady, East Coaster to West Coaster, childless to parent, wife to widow ― the one constant has been that I’m a journalist. A proud and happy one at that. It’s been the rare day in more than 45 years of writing and reporting that I wasn’t eager to go to work.
So why stop now? Why stop at all?
The short answer is this: Because I can. And that doesn’t come from winning the lottery, but from changing my perspective. While I may not have enough money saved to last me for the rest of my years, there is something much more important that I’m afraid of running out of.
It’s time ― at least, healthy time.
Truth is, I can’t think of a greater kick in the ass than to have been my husband’s caregiver for a painful and relentlessly miserable 18 months, only to lose him to death in January of 2017. My take-away from the experience ― besides that caregiving sucks big-time and family caregivers are getting royally screwed ― is that life is short and a healthy life even shorter.
I don’t want to miss out on what’s left of mine. I’ve learned much in my journey to get to this point of being ready to retire, including the fact that I pretty much hate it when people refer to their lives as journeys. Lives are more important than journeys because everyone gets better-served when we stop focusing on ourselves. Take that advice and apply it liberally.
Which is what I plan to do as well. I will write a funny/sad/irreverent book and hope you will read it. I will travel to all those places I want to see before my body becomes disinterested in joining me. I will play loud music every day, dance around the kitchen while I cook and only drink good wine because, as the T-shirt preaches, “Life is too short for bad wine.” I have fallen in love again with both life and a terrific guy I plan to share mine with. My kids are (almost) solidly on their paths to improve the world, and my dark tunnel is now filled with light. I’m happy.
So yes, I am retiring. I’ve been pushed over the edge as a caregiver, buried alive in the grief of loss, and found my bearings again through forces of nature I may never fully understand. And I’ve had the therapeutic gift of being able to share it all with others through HuffPost. Readers have thanked me for putting into words what they felt, but I always thought that the gratitude should flow in the other direction. Thank you for reading. Thank you for making me feel relevant. Thank you for letting me share my life with you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
And to the friend who asked me recently if I had any regrets or things I would do over, I can only say I wish Grandma had better aim when she sent that dinner plate my way. Maybe I would have woken up sooner.